Keiko Matsui - form, function & contemplation

To coincide with Japanese born, Australian based ceramic artist, Keiko Matsui’s latest solo exhibition Functional Objects at Small Spaces in Sydney (9th to the 30th of September), I have decide to write my very first ceramics post. As a keen collector of studio ceramics - and simple monochromatic bottle and bowl shapes in particular, I am a sucker for Keiko’s work.

Nestled 'Scar' bowls by Keiko Matsui. 

Nestled 'Scar' bowls by Keiko Matsui. 

While her cut and delicately altered southern ice porcelain forms have evolved partly with inevitable influences from Australian ceramicists such as Prue Venables her work retains an undeniable connection to her cultural roots. The result is a unique style of work that is delicate but tactile and unmistakably her own.

'IS' footed bowls by Keiko Matsui. Photo by Stephen Cummings.

'IS' footed bowls by Keiko Matsui. Photo by Stephen Cummings.

Keiko predominantly produces tableware in Australian Southern Ice, Les Blakebrough's Cool ice or Superior White porcelain. Her refined aesthetic frees her bowls, plates and vases so that they perform equally well as sculptural objects, exhibiting a gentle purity. Keiko also works in stoneware for certain wheel thrown and slab constructed work. These pieces reveal an earthy, slightly rustic quality in comparison to her finer porcelain objects.

'House Vase' objects by Keiko Matsui. Photo by Greg Piper.

'House Vase' objects by Keiko Matsui. Photo by Greg Piper.

Keiko does produce pieces created specifically as sculpture but in a form of reverse engineering she cant help giving them a function - even if it is just a tiny slot to hold a branch or flower stem.

'House Vase' objects with blossom. Window-like incisions add practicality. Photo Greg Piper

'House Vase' objects with blossom. Window-like incisions add practicality. Photo Greg Piper

Moving to Australia in 1999, Keiko studied fine arts between 2003 and 2005 at the National Art School in Sydney and went on to complete an honours degree there in 2006. Having been involved in dozens of group shows all over Australia between 2003 and 2011, she was invited to hold her first solo show called “Contained” at STURT Gallery in Mittagong, NSW (Australia) in 2012 and has produced one solo show at each year since.

A stoneware bowl with incised foot and plum blossom. Photo by Greg Piper.

A stoneware bowl with incised foot and plum blossom. Photo by Greg Piper.

Up until late 2011 Keiko’s studio was in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Chippendale but due to the fact that this studio was only able to accommodate a small electric kiln, she made the move to Umina Beach on the NSW Central Coast in 2012. Her new studio is positively rural in comparison to her old shop front location and reinforces her deep appreciation of nature. “I am inspired by some aspects of culture and all aspects of nature” she wrote in 2011. “Clay is the most versatile medium for me. It changes and surprises you with firing and glazing. I also physically enjoy touching clay, the process is very meditative. Carrying on an ancient tradition in an ever-changing world is very grounding”. Influenced by the controlled styling of the Japanese flower arranging art, Ikebana, Keiko finds it hard not to think of how flowers may sit in her vases and bottles as she is making them. She has also worked with Ikebana artist Setsuko Yanagisawa on a number of occasions to create a meeting of their two art forms. For more on this side of Keiko's work visit her website here.

Her stoneware vase and bottles forms reveal another side of Keiko's work with influences from great British potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. Photo by Greg Piper.

Her stoneware vase and bottles forms reveal another side of Keiko's work with influences from great British potters Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. Photo by Greg Piper.

While I was looking through old blog posts by Keiko while researching this post, I came across a reference to the 1962 visit to Australia by iconic British studio potter, Bernard Leach. An extract from an essay written by Leach in the very first issue of Pottery in Australia magazine, eloquently sums up the predicament for all potters who strive for something more than basic functionality. Ceramics are rarely regarded as achieving the dizzying heights of ‘art’ unless they are either highly intricate / decorative or in some way conceptual, yet what Bernard Leach identified over half a century ago, is that divisions between all artistic expressions are irrelevant and unnecessary. So while Keiko and many other ceramic artists / potters may create simple, highly functional objects, it is the subtle beauty that they bring to those objects that really counts.

The black 'Scar' vessels have a very different aesthetic to the usual white porcelain versions. They become totemic artefacts, almost like Easter Island statues. Photo by Greg Piper.

The black 'Scar' vessels have a very different aesthetic to the usual white porcelain versions. They become totemic artefacts, almost like Easter Island statues. Photo by Greg Piper.

"Let me say at once in Japan they laugh at this division. Art is art, or it is nothing. It is an expression of the delight in man, in beauty, in things: and if that vitality, that delight is apparent, it does not matter whether it is in fine art, or applied art, or crafts. We have had too much of this division. It is part of the result of the industrial revolution which was a kind of splitting of the personality of man into what you must do for utilitarian and practical reasons, and what you would like to do if you have time and money". 

Bernard Leach from Pottery in Australia Volume 1, MAY, 1962.

The 'Beginning' vessels by Keiko Matsui show a slightly more exaggerated use of her scar motif. The reference has its roots in the Japanese philosophy of visible mending of precious objects that crack, split  or chip during their lifetime. Photo by Stephen Cummings.

The 'Beginning' vessels by Keiko Matsui show a slightly more exaggerated use of her scar motif. The reference has its roots in the Japanese philosophy of visible mending of precious objects that crack, split  or chip during their lifetime. Photo by Stephen Cummings.

Keiko Matsui has been the recipient of numerous awards for her work including the 2014 Gosford Art Prize (Ceramics), the 2013 Clunes Ceramic Award - Emerging Artist Prize and the 2012 Gosford Art Prize (Ceramics). She was also one of four finalists in the 2013 Vitrify Alcorso Ceramic Award.

'Towards' vessels from 2012 are wheel thrown then altered and combine the scar motif with a stippled base. Photo Stephen Cummings.

'Towards' vessels from 2012 are wheel thrown then altered and combine the scar motif with a stippled base. Photo Stephen Cummings.

Keiko's work is available though the following Australian galleries: Sturt Gallery in Mittagong, Small Spaces in Redfern, Sydney and Parkes Place in Canberra, AC.

'Mother & Child' vessels from 2012 add a bound element to the scar series. This creates a slightly more tortured beauty. Photo Stephen Cummings.

'Mother & Child' vessels from 2012 add a bound element to the scar series. This creates a slightly more tortured beauty. Photo Stephen Cummings.

Her new exhibition Functional Objects will be on show at Small Spaces at 674 Bourke st, Redfern, from the 9th September until the 30th of September 2015. She will also be speaking about her work and practice at Small Spaces on Sunday 13th September as a part of Sydney Contemporary.

'Scar' bowls big and small. Photo by Greg Piper.

'Scar' bowls big and small. Photo by Greg Piper.